Will a Floating Data Center Become the Future of Data Hosting?

A data center built by Nautilus Technologies would pump water from the Stockton Deep Water Channel at a maximum rate of 3,000 to 4,500 gallons per minute and would re-enter the channel a negligible 4 degrees hotter.

by Reed Fujii, The Record, Stockton, Calif. / May 27, 2016
A Nautilus floating data barge Nautilus Data Technologies

(TNS) -- Forget the Google barge.

Nautilus Data Technologies Inc. of Pleasanton, Calif., has built the real deal — a barge 235 feet long and 55 feet wide, capable of carrying up to 540 racks of computer servers — and wants to bring its floating data center to the port of Stockton.

While the Google barge came to Stockton in March 2014 amid a blitz of media scrutiny and speculation it might be a server farm, which it wasn’t, Nautilus was quietly building its Eli M vessel at Mare Island.

And while Google executives said not a peep about selling their barge, which the new owner towed to Seattle in March to be refitted as a standard freight hauler, Nautilus executives announced their plans at Thursday’s meeting of the San Joaquin Partnership.

Nautilus Chief Executive James Connaughton said the port can provide the combination of water, electric power and huge fiber-optic data connections the prototype data center requires.

“Stockton is ideally suited to deliver on that promise,” he said.

The company and the port are still negotiating a lease that would bring the data center, and about a dozen jobs, to the west end of Rough and Ready Island, and a limited environmental review must be cleared.

“I’m optimistic we can make something work,” said Connaughton, who hopes to move in by the fall.

Steve Escobar, deputy port director who oversees port real estate and development, said if things go well, he might bring a potential agreement to the port commission sometime in July or August.

“We’re excited about it,” he said.

Mike Ammann, chief executive of the partnership, which is the countywide economic development agency, said Nautilus’ venture signals the start of many more technology companies moving into San Joaquin County.

“I think truly the third wave has rolled in, into the port,” he said, referring to futurist’s Alvin Toffler’s description of the information age as the third major wave of human development, following the development of agriculture and, later, industry.

Susan Dell’Osso, partnership vice chairwoman who also has a business interest in a data center company, underscored that prediction.

Data service in San Joaquin County is now mostly limited to Comcast and AT&T, which discourages many high-tech companies who seek specialized or custom data services not available from the ISP giants, she said. The Nautilus project potentially opens the door to new data carriers, and their customers may follow.

“This is a big deal,” Dell’Osso said.

She also applauded the Nautilus barge’s environmental benefits.

The company claims its barge will reduce energy consumption and thus carbon emissions, by 30 percent vs. conventional server farms.

And by floating on a body of water, whether fresh or saltwater, and using it for cooling, it eliminates the need for evaporative cooling. A typical data center may consumer 80 million to 100 million gallons a year for that purpose, Nautilus officials said.

“The low impact on the water is the best part of the story,” Connaughton said.

The data center would pump water from the Stockton Deep Water Channel at a maximum rate of 3,000 to 4,500 gallons per minute and the water would re-enter the river 4 degrees Fahrenheit hotter. The impact would be negligible, Connaughton said.

“When mixed with the water in the channel, in the lowest flow conditions measured in the last 20 years, the projected maximum temperature difference is 1/10 of a degree Fahrenheit,” he said.

Bill Jennings, director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, said the one barge might not make a discernable difference in water quality, but the project needs closer scrutiny.

It would be one added stress to a waterway where high temperatures now affect many threatened and endangered species.

“Keep in mind our temperatures are already a limiting factor to salmonid migration,” he said.

“Many of the problems we encounter are the result of a series of small, incremental actions that cumulatively create massive problems.”

©2016 The Record (Stockton, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.